Where and how do you encounter God?
Barbara Brown Taylor – theologian, preacher, author, speaker – reflects upon what the Christian Scriptures have to say about these questions in her book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. As she looks at the stories of faith, she writes, “People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, in starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.” She goes on to say, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”
Over spring break, I was privileged to lead a trip through the Theology Department and the Chapel to Holden Village. Holden is an off-the-grid, Lutheran retreat center, isolated in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Because it is so remote, there is no easy way to get there. Visitors have two options — hike through the mountains, or take the boat up Lake Chelan and then a bus through nine switchbacks and up 11 miles. We opted for the latter!
Throughout the trip, we paid attention to those questions — where and how do you encounter God? We kept our eyes and our hearts open to both the ordinary and the extraordinary. We kept Taylor’s words close, and we paid attention to the unexpected places where we cracked our shins on altars in the world.
Where and how did we encounter God? Here are some of our answers.
When our flights at the beginning of our trip took us into Seattle instead of Spokane as planned (for those of you who know Washington, you will realize that this change meant we ended up on the wrong side of the Cascade Mountains) we encountered God when we all arrived at the same place, after our re-routing put us on two separate itineraries that included both Albany, New York, and San Diego, California, along the way. We encountered God in all of our luggage arriving with us to our changed destination.
We encountered God in Dale Koetke, Valpo alum and uncle of one of our travelers, who on short notice put all twelve of us up in his home when we arrived in the middle of the night. We encountered God in Uncle Dale’s scrambled eggs and pancakes the next morning.
We encountered God in the sheer beauty of the Northwest as we drove from springtime in Seattle through snow on Stevens Pass, to the awakening of the high desert on the East side of the mountains. We encountered God in an unplanned stop in Leavenworth, where we saw the murals of noted liturgical artist Richard Caemmerer at Faith Lutheran Church and in the music of a choir rehearsing there.
We encountered God in the sunset over Lake Chelan and in the hospitality of Lake Chelan Lutheran Church. We encountered God in the food and drink of a “send off meal,” smooth waters on the boat crossings, blue skies, snow-capped mountains, the village members welcoming us to our mountain home, a sky lit up with stars on the canvas of heaven, work through which we contributed to the life of the village, a village that runs on hydro-power for the sake of the earth, sorting garbage to leave as minimal a footprint as possible, never-ending-bread, fruit, coffee, and tea, skiing, snow-shoeing,worship, and a 24-hour snowfall that immersed us in a snowglobe-come-to-life.
We encountered God in people who make the Village a long-term home, and in other temporary sojourners like ourselves. We encountered God in Joy and Bill and Pr. Amy at Newport Covenant Church in Bellevue whose gracious hospitality gave us a place to land after we left the Village, before flying home. We encountered God in Jaehan who came to pick us up at Midway and in a bus driver who brightened our spirits after a long journey. We encountered God in the Lutheran Deaconess Association who gave students a place to crash when we got back. We encountered God in those we met along the way, and we most certainly encountered God in one another.
It was an incredible trip. We cracked our shins on altars in the world, over and over and over again.
Sometimes when we have away experiences like this, we find it relatively easy to keep our eyes open to the presence of God. After all, experiences like these tend to be full, rich, and ripe with possibility for seeing what we might ordinarily dismiss. But I would encourage you to keep your eyes open to the altars in the world that you encounter in your everyday life. Keep your eyes open to when and where you encounter God right here, right now, as you go about your work, and your studies, and even your play. Be careful though; you might just end up cracking your shins on altars everywhere you go.
March 21, 2018
Rev. James A. Wetzstein and Rev. Charlene M. Rachuy Cox serve as university pastors at Valpo and take turns writing weekly reflections.